Leaven is a fermenting agent used in bread-making to make the dough rise. It requires time to fulfill the process, but once introduced to the dough it permeates the whole mass, and the process is irreversible. Because of its pervasive nature leaven signifies a corrupting influence among God's people, and throughout scripture it is used to symbolize evil. The common bread in the Old Testament was made with leaven and was acceptable as wave offerings to the priests, and as loaves to accompany the peace offerings (CP Lev 7:11-13; 23:17). However, leaven and honey, which is a fermenting agent too, and thus also a symbolic source of corruption in the Old Testament, were strictly forbidden to be used in any sacrifice made by fire unto God, because these were typical (a type) of the offering up of the sinless sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ (CP 2Cor 5:21). Typical bread representing Christ had to be unleavened (CP Lev 2:4,11; 6:1417). Leaven was forbidden in all offerings to God by fire. Being bred of corruption and spreading through the mass into which it is introduced, and therefore symbolizing the pervasive character of evil, leaven was utterly inconsistent in offerings which typified the propitiatory (atoning) sacrifice of Christ. Leaven was also forbidden to be used in the feast of unleavened bread which was celebrated in conjunction with the Old Testament Passover festival (CP Ex 12:14-20; 23:15; 34:18; De 16:1-4). The Passover festival commemorated God's deliverance of the children of Israel from the corruption of Egypt where they had been kept in bondage for over 400 years. The Passover Lamb was an Old Testament type of Christ (CP 1Cor 5:7).
In the New Testament leaven is symbolic of any evil influence in the church, which if allowed to remain, can corrupt the whole body of believers (CP V1-8). Paul uses leaven here in the same sense Jesus does - as a type of sin in its development (CP Mt 16:6-12). Here we have the parable of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Leaven here symbolizes false doctrines which can penetrate and influence the whole church (CP Ga 5:6-9). Here leaven typifies the harmful effects of false doctrine. Paul refers to it as a "persuasion" - something that exerts a powerful and moving influence - hindering men from obeying the truth of God (CP Lu 12:1-3). This is called the parable of the leaven of the Pharisees. The hypocrisy that leaven symbolizes here is pretending to be something we are not - acting publicly as godly and faithful Christians when in reality we harbour sin, immorality, greed, lust and unrighteousness (CP Mk 8:15). This is the parable of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the leaven of Herod. The word "Herod" in this context is used collectively of the Herodians - those belonging to the court of Herod Antipas, also known as Herod the Tetrarch - who combined with the Pharisees in an attempt to kill Jesus. The leaven here symbolizes the hypocrisy of both the Pharisees and the Herodians in asking Jesus for a sign although their minds were already made up to kill him (CP V11 -12; 3:1-6).
In all these New Testament scriptures both Jesus and Paul use leaven to symbolize the pervasive character of evil permeating the professing church, which is the visible manifestation of the kingdom of heaven in its present earthly aspect, yet a great many Christians believe that in the parable of the leaven our Lord uses leaven in a good sense to symbolize the permeating effects of the gospel in Christianising the world. It seems incongruous that they could believe that because firstly, nowhere in scripture are we taught that the world will ever be Christianised. In fact the opposite is true - in the parable of the sower we learned that most people who hear the gospel will reject it, and this is the teaching throughout the whole of the New Testament (CP Mt 24:3-13; Ro 1:18-32; 2Th 2:7-12; 1Ti 4:1; 2Pe 3:3-4; Jude 17-19; Rev 3:14-16). Secondly, there is complete harmony in Jesus' parables concerning the nature and development of the kingdom in Mt 13, and it must be restated here that Jesus would never use a figure of speech in two different senses making one parable contradict the teaching of another. So, as leaven is symbolic of evil everywhere else in scripture, it is here too. Furthermore, the particular action of the woman in the parable hiding the leaven in the meal is a significant factor also in helping to interpret the parable. If the leaven represented something good, why hide it? The word "hid" means conceal. The meal typifies God's word and the leaven was concealed in it. It was not openly mixed in with the meal, but covertly introduced to it. This represents the subtle way in which the forces of Satan are at work in the kingdom spreading their corruptive influence by adulterating God's word and undermining its authority among professing Christians (CP Ac 20:29-30; 1Jn 2:18-19; 2Jn 1:7-8; Jude 3-4). Jesus' teaching concerning the nature and development of the kingdom of heaven in Mt 13 is quite clear - the kingdom will always be befouled by the presence and the plots of Satan. (See also comments on 13:3-9; 13:24-30; 13:31-32.)
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